book review – The Unfree French

On the ferry heading over to France for my holiday this year I noticed that the shop on board had a few books that were crammed in with the chocolates, fags and booze. On the way home I chose to dispose of some euros and picked up Richard Vinen’s book. It seemed an odd thing to be selling on a boat that would include a fair amount of French passengers.

Still why not with this promising to dispel some of the myths of the occupation years and inform a general reader of what happened in France just before Hitler and company took over and the resulting four years.

If there were one word that sums up what happened during those years it would have to be “confusion”. No one seemed to know what was going on and as a result the army fled, fought when the war was over, and the general population often had no idea what was going on. In terms of the politics it was almost the same with Vichy trying to stand for some sort of French rule while having to accept that there was powerlessness in the face of German demands and wishes.

The other word that could also be taken away from this book is cruelty. Sometimes the fate for those that were taken as prisoners of war dragged to work in Germany or dammed by association with Germans was incredibly cruel. Obviously the Jews suffered but other groups were also victims of a regime of oppression and a country that was occasionally quite prepared to denounce each other.

The reasons for the fall of France are probably covered better elsewhere in military histories but the military historians usually walk away after the battles have been fought. Vinen is different and what he does is use letters, memoirs and other primary sources to patch together what it felt like to be living in France during the war years. As a result he manages to get that randomness of fate that meant some survived and others took a wrong turn and were dealt a much harsher hand.

One of the lasting impressions this book will leave me with is the impact that Blitzkrieg can have not just militarily but on the psyche of a nation. France never really recovered from the attack that swept pass the Maginot Line and saw Hitler walking into Paris. The people had various groups to blame – the army, the politicians and external agents – but ultimately the fingers could have been pointed into the air because there was no satisfaction for anyone trying to pin blame.

History needs to be understood and read because it contains millions of stories of normal people that were living through extraordinary times. Vinen gives voices to several and the effect is to open your eyes. How would you have reacted? Would you have fled, supported Vichy or joined the resistance and fought on? The insights of those who really faced those decisions can provide a great deal of food for thought but ultimately thankfully the reader of this history doesn’t have to find answers to those questions.

A trip to France will never quite be the same again and for that Vinen deserves a great deal of recognition.

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